Academy of Vocal Arts presents Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ (The Troubador)

Forget the plot, just listen

Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini famously quipped that a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) doesn’t require much to succeed: “Only the four best singers in the world.” The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) staging that concluded its Philadelphia run Saturday night didn’t have them — it was a student production, after all — but still offered many resourceful delights along the way.

Claire de Monteil's Leonora and Mackenzie Gotcher's Manrico. (Photo by Paul Sirochman.)

Verdi’s 1853 opera has been rightly lauded for its musical virtues. Writing in the twilight of the bel canto (beautiful singing) period, Verdi embellished the work’s plentiful arias with coloratura runs, tantalizing trills, ample opportunities for ornamentation, and cabalettas galore (some of which were, regrettably, cut here). But the music also looks ahead to the full-throated passions of the verismo tradition following Verdi’s 40-year dominance of the opera stage.

Dramaturgically, though, Il Trovatore serves as a prime example of the convoluted excesses that plague music-theater plots. There’s really no point in summarizing — you still won’t understand how the various strands dovetail together, even if you speak decent Italian. But a brief précis would include vindictive Roma, love-struck noblemen, tragically honor-bound damsels in distress, mistaken identities, long-lost brothers, and the title’s heroic troubadour. This is an opera best enjoyed when you regard the story as a mere afterthought.

Refreshingly old fashioned

Michael Scarola’s production for AVA allowed the audience to do just that. The evening had a refreshingly old-fashioned air, with imposing wooden sets (by Peter Harrison) that choristers moved by hand during scene changes and costumes (by Val Starr) that could have been rented from a bus-and-truck tour of Spamalot. Allen G. Doak Jr.’s dusky lighting created a level of dramatic tension that compensated for Charles Conwell’s unintentionally hilarious combat choreography.

The 33-player AVA Orchestra sounded spectacular under Christofer Macatsoris’s baton, filling the intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater with Verdi’s lush melodies and hurtling crescendos. The space has fabulous acoustics, but an orchestra this big could easily overwhelm unamplified voices. Macatsoris never allowed that; he sensitively cleaved the orchestra’s powers to the singers, never swamping them. The voices grew in distinction because of it.

The most completely realized performance came from Ethan Simpson, a third-year baritone from Kansas City, Missouri. As the jealous Count di Luna, he deployed flawless legato in “Il balen del suo sorisso” (the sparkle of her smile), Luna’s fervent paean to lady-in-waiting Leonora (soprano Claire de Monteil), capping the aria with an exquisite high G that seemed to float in the air for several minutes.

Opera in the outposts

First-year resident artist Gabriela Flores made a compelling Azucena, the sorceress who lives to avenge her mother, who died at the hands of Count di Luna. Her lyric mezzo-soprano may be a size too small for the role, but she compensated by acting the part with thrilling abandon. Firm-voiced bass-baritone Nathan Milholin distinguished himself in the small but vital role of Ferrando, Count di Luna’s second-in-command.

One could hear promise in de Monteil’s well-produced soprano, but she seemed uncomfortable with Leonora’s coloratura demands. She also tended to “park and bark,” limiting her acting to a few scattershot outsized gestures. Tenor Mackenzie Gotcher was more dramatically engaged as Manrico, although his generally fine voice buckled under some of the role’s weightier demands. Try though he did, he couldn’t quite coax the customary (but unwritten) high C that ends Manrico’s Act Three cabaletta “Di quella pira, l’orrendo foco” (the flames of the terrible pyre).

Still, the production closed with far more marks in the plus column. Il Trovatore will travel to several venues in Lehigh County and Bucks County in the coming weeks. Opera devotees in those regions should make a point of hearing what one of the premier U.S. conservatories has to offer.

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